There was mud on her shoes, and she didn't remember it being there before. It was simply that she had looked down suddenly and spied with mild surprise the dark-brown sludge clinging to the tips of her satin slippers.

"That will never come out," she said to no one, dropping the cat she was holding as she stepped through the wide doorway and into the ornate entry hall. Distinctly, she heard a large, heavy door creak closed behind her; its echoed reverberated throughout the old house.

She turned. The door was heavily decorated, its wood finely carved into all manner of vines and elven figures. It seemed empty, as though gaping at her, its unseeable eyes wide and its mouth yawning in morbid earnest. Beneath her thin white chemise, she felt her heart pitter-patter in her fragile chest.

In a voice as light and breathy as a feather, she mumbled:

"That will never come out, Rebecca."

"Josephine."

She turned. It wasn't because she recognized the name that was being called, but because someone was calling out a name, and she was the only one to answer it. And all besides, she knew the voice, and she decided that familiarity was enough to capture her immediate attention.

She twirled on the spot, dress furling out around her pretty ankles, turning her head just so that her powder-soft cheek entertained what blue light filtered through the room. She lifted a strawberry-gold brow quizzically.

The caller was a man, tall and impressive, hand clasped over one wrist patiently, dressed in a black priest's cassock. His face proclaimed him middle-age, but his eyes craved a litany of endless nothingness and pitiless blackness. He regarded the nymphet with unrelenting authority.

"Josephine," he said again. His voice was heavy, like tar but not like tar; thick like honey, but not like honey, not sweet at all--- or else sweet in the sense that sweetness has been dried, made impotent by time and an age of improving one's bedside manner to the dying. His eyes glanced off down her pretty white dress, to her immaculate, stocking-less ankles, landing on her muddied feet.

"You've been out in the garden again."

The one he called Josephine shrugged one smaller shoulder, grazing her soft cheek across it; at his side, his hand curled.

"I don't know," she said in her scratchy-tiny voice. "I don't know if I've been anywhere."

"You cannot remember."
"I cannot remember," she echoed, and it was like a chorus of starving birds.

He sighed with minimal moroseness. He stepped closer to her, reaching out and touching her shoulder; his touch was lighter than a feather, not strong enough to convey any feeling, but if it were any more intense he was sure it would shatter her.

"Come," he said, giving her snow-white shoulder the tiniest of tired squeezes. "We must get you cleaned up."

She fell into his hands with the placidity of an eternal rosebud that would never grow. "Are there any visitors?" she whispered with half-dazed excitement. "Are we having company?"

"Perhaps," and the lie was told with more ease than made him comfortable; he was growing too used to it, this mendacity. It went against his vows, his teachings, all his principles--- but he was doing it for good, no? Was it a sin to lie to preserve a dream?

She shivered like a wet kitten. He wanted to tighten his grip on her, make more than a phantom hand at her shoulder, more than a guiding, nearly-intangible pressure. He wanted her to feel and know that he was there . . .

"Josephine," he said, "Who was it that you were talking to?"

He wanted her to say--- could imagine her saying--- "A flower" or "A bird" or "A wind." It would have been an answer worthy of those clay-fine, damaged paper lips. And he thought that any answer, no matter how absurd, would be better than the silence. It was bearable when he was alone, this repressive quiet, but only then; he could never tolerate it from her.

Even though it followed her everywhere.

"No one. Just talking."

And yes, she was hiding something now. Automatically, with the severity of a tenured schoolteacher, he narrowed his eyes--- then quickly melted his harsh suspicion, not wanting her to see.

Carefully, he said, "Oh? About what?"

"What else would I talk to myself about?" she whispered, as if the answer was obvious. There was a crimson tinge of annoyance in her voice.

He deliberately ignored her attempt at venom-spitting, keeping his voice neutral and calm. Lilies, he thought, think of lilies.

"I don't know, Josephine," he said. "I don't know every thought in your head." I am a lamb; I don't know anything.

"The sparrows are pretty today," she said as they descended a small flight of stairs, letting herself be lead by him. "I don't think I've ever seen such pretty sparrows."

"And were the leaves golden?" he asked, wanting to keep the conversation, however scant, going as long as possible. A chill was creeping along him, up his back, like the icy legs of a frost-spider. "You brought me the prettiest golden leaf the other day; are they still there?"

She smiled, pleased, somehow, by his obscure questioning. "Yes," she affirmed, watching her feet daintily toe each of the stairs with great care. "Yes, they are still there. They shined with the most beautiful light today--- if color were music, they would have been singing most splendidly."
And even he smiled at this as they turned at the bottom of the stairs and veered off into a small, cozy hallway. So preoccupied his was with his brief smile that he nearly forgot to be unnerved by the tapestries, pounded with brutal, now-silent histories, or the drapes, clung around the edges of the windows so that they let no light invade.

To the end of this corridor they walked, his left hand on her sheer-white clothed shoulder, feeling the trembling bones beneath, his right holding hers the way a pillow holds a babe's sleeping head. He listened to the stillness, to their muffled footsteps on the dusty carpet, to the faint flutter that may have been her heart or a bird in the eaves. He listened to his own heart, grown giant in his chest with every passing moment, until it was a thunderous bell in his ears---

They came to a door, and his hand left hers while he reached for the knob. It felt cold and foreign and he wanted to cringe; but he turned it dutifully, opening the room


That is where I stopped, three weeks ago. I am not sure I should pick it back up again, but I thought someone might appreciate this small tidbit of a plotless oneshot.